Most Americans don’t accurately know what and who the baby boom is. Even the national press corps is somewhat cloudy on the issue. For instance, with the first election of Barack Obama, many in the media talked of the “new generation” taking the helm. Sorry folks, but Obama is also (gasp!) a boomer.
He was born in 1961, making him two years older than the youngest of the baby boomers, those born in 1963. This author is very nearly the oldest of boomers, having been born in January of 1946, the first year of the post WW II birth boom (nothing like a defeat of fascism to get the old libido pumped up, eh?). Therefore, starting with Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and finally Barack Obama, the country will have experienced 24 years of baby boomer leadership. Depending on who gets elected in 2016 it could be longer.
Suffice to say, the baby boom covers more chronological territory than most Americans understand, except for demographers (a fun, fun group). A generation covers about 18 years, the time it takes for an infant to become old enough to start producing babies of his or her own. There are some fecund and formerly precocious older boomers who have children who are also boomers. Now that is profoundly weird.
When the concept of the baby boom is discussed today, many people think only of 60′s Flower Children,Vietnam vets and Woodstock mud. True, but that is far too narrow a slice of the generation to get a real sense of dread for what the “aging of the baby boom” means to our country and its treasury. You may have noticed that our treasury is already under a bit of stress; it’s been in all the papers.
In 25 years, the youngest boomers will celebrate their 65th birthdays and the oldest boomers will be 82. Even considering that some will have gone on to their own Strawberry Fields Forever by then, the actuarial crowd (another fun party group) estimates that America will then look like Florida does today, with every fourth American qualified for Medicare. Currently, it is only every eighth American who is old enough to qualify.
The promises made by our elected officials since 1935 (Social Security) and 1965 (Medicare), to all those who have the foresight to reach the age of 65, are far beyond what the national pocketbook can afford, once the tsunami of boomers begins to muscle their way to the public trough. The elected officials have known this for a long, long, long time but making more and bigger promises keeps them in office. These entitlement chickens are coming home to roost and they are in a foul mood (I apologize for that one. No really, I do.)
Here’s my reality. Only those of us in the baby boom can save America from the baby boom. We can do it through modest shared sacrifice by say, agreeing that some affluent portion of us could get by nicely on only 95% of the Social Security check that at we thought that we were going to get. Bill Gates, Donald Trump and many others of us don’t need 100 cents on every dollar promised in order to live a comfortable retirement. If Bill, Don and I all kick and scream and demand our 100 cents on the dollar, then our children and grandchildren will see us for the navel gazing, greedy generation that we promised not to be back in our idealistic days.
There are several other ways to fairly -and not very painfully- tweak Social Security and make it solvent long-term. The one currently being discussed in Washington, however, that is to change the calculation of the Cost of Living annual adjustments, stinks. It’s bad because it impacts all SS recipients and is therefore regressive, hurting those who need the financial support the most.
Harder will be the changes necessary to shield America from the rampaging financial bull that Medicare/Medicaid is becoming. Make no mistake; these programs have many systemic problems that desperately need correction, fraud, financial abuse and over- treatment being prime examples. However, the programs actually work pretty well as a single-payer health system. The poisonous ingredient in the Medicare (and Medicaid) soup is health care cost inflation of nearly 7% per year. If America doesn’t finally address and solve our profit-driven health care cost inflation challenge, Medicare and Medicaid will sink the ship of state. To date, the solution that Washington has adopted is, “Quick, have the orchestra play something perky and we’ll kick the can down the deck”.
Solving the Medicare/Medicaid challenge means changing -and dramatically so- our health care system. This is a problem that all Americans, not just boomers, will have to tackle. These changes will have to be done while ignoring the screeches coming from the extreme ends of the political bell curve and from those in the special interest groups. If they win, we all lose. The importance of this issue is the reason, in spite of doubters, that Obama kept health care reform as part of the agenda in the midst of a financial crisis. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was a necessary but not sufficient step in the right direction.
As a voting block of 77 million, baby boomers hold the key. United, we can prove ourselves a great generation, not just a great big generation. Divided, however, our ability to secure the fiscal future of the country vanishes in opposing ideologies. We’ve already tried it that way and it has brought us to a perilous place.
Have two epiphanies and call me in the morning.